Monday, October 23, 2006
A classic El Clásico
What a difference a week makes. Pardon the cliché, but we're all allowed one from time to time. After last weekend's events, in which Real Madrid staggered from neighbour Getafe's coliseum like an arthritic gladiator to the tune of Marca's 'Es possible jugar peor?' (Is it possible to play worse?) and Barcelona consolidated their lead in the table with a convincing victory over rivals Sevilla, it was all looking like a case of déjà vu.
Capello administered a hair-drying session to the Madrid squad the day after, insisting that they would never play so badly again, or Lord help him, he would retire to a Tuscan monastery, don a hair-shirt and never be seen again. Over in Barcelona, the schadenfreude (or however you say that in Catalan) was overflowing, such was the special glow of content at the further evidence that the house of Bernabéu was still in disarray. Even worse was the fact that Getafe's manager was Bernd Schuster, the ex-Madrid midfielder who had been president Calderon's first choice - as expressed in the hustings before the elections, but who had been persuaded otherwise by Mijatovic, a Champions League winner during Capello's previous reign at Madrid and much in favour of his return.
The general feeling last Sunday was that the new Madrid were a walking disaster, and that they had made the wrong choice of manager. Capello - like Camacho a fairly untouchable figure when it comes to the Madrid press, was suddenly under fire. Calderón was also coming in for some stick for allowing Mijatovic too much power, whereas at the beginning of the season the same president had been praised for his hands-off approach, in contrast to his megalomaniac predecessor.
But on Tuesday in Bucharest, something happened. Madrid won 4-1, Raúl scored, something clicked and the team rang rings around their hosts - who were not a great side it has to be said, but one who were fully capable of knocking an already punch-drunk opponent out of the ring. Madrid never let them settle, and by dominating them physically and tactically ran out deserved winners. Robinho, handed a run-out from the start, changed Madrid's formerly plodding style to a speedy and threatening fluency, and the team looked a different prospect altogether. And the Yin-Yang nature of Madrid and Barça continued the next night when Chelsea outfought the Catalans to score a deserved victory, in what was hardly a bad showing by Rijkaard's men but which was a defeat nevertheless - and defeats for Barça are news these days in Europe.
Last season, Barça just looked too good for Chelsea, superior in technique and more flexible in their tactical approach. On Wednesday, Chelsea simply looked stronger, more up for it. Ronaldinho seemed timid, easily dispossessed and seemingly keen to pass the buck to Messi - a player who is an astounding talent but who met his match in Essien. The Chelsea man didn't so much man-mark Messi as simply ensure that the space between the Argentine and the player about to pass him the ball was always closed down. And suddenly, with Barça's two supermen relatively subdued, Chelsea themselves emerged with a more liberated look to their play than in last season's encounters, and could have won it by a greater margin.
Madrid's players, one supposes, were watching on the telly, having arrived back from Bucharest that afternoon. Whether the game in London influenced their own tactical approach remains a moot point, but there were definite similarities in the way that they ceded the majority of possession, but only in certain areas of the field. Once Barça moved into the final third, Madrid's tackling was fiercer and more committed than it has been for many a moon, and although Gudjohnsen should have scored when Messi pulled the ball back to him, and although the visitors had a good spell in the last twenty minutes of the first half, the truth is that Barça were well beaten.
The game was one of the best clásicos in recent memory, probably because Raúl scored the opener so early, thus obliging Barça to come straight out of their shells. It became a great clash of styles, Madrid playing a sort of semi-catenaccio style, but breaking with much more speed and fluency than of late. Barça had the lion's share of possession, but as the game wore on their midfield began to give the ball away more than is their wont, at times in dangerous positions. And physically Madrid's midfield line of Emerson and Diarra were always too much for Xavi and Deco, with Iniesta similarly subdued.
Roberto Carlos, heaven help us, suddenly looked a great player again, and Cannavaro mopped up magnificently. Ivan Helguera, recently restored to the side after looking down and out on his luck (he wasn't even given a squad number in summer) played as well as he did in Romania - an unexpected boost to a defence that wilted alarmingly at Getafe.
Helguera's a strange fish. When he made his debut back in 1999 he was hailed as the new Bobby Moore by Michel, making one of his early appearances as a commentator. This was praise indeed, and Helguera was soon in the national side. But when Hierro declined and fell, so did Helguera. The protector suddenly gone, it was clear that the Cantabrian was neither one thing nor the other - certainly no central defender, and lost in no-man's land when there was no commanding centre-back to sweep behind. Seemingly in terminal decline, it's interesting that as soon as Cannavaro has come good, so has Helguera. Messi gave them the run-around at times on Sunday, but Messi will do that to anyone. In general terms, Ivan and Fabio looked a solid pairing.
Will historians look back on this week and see it as decisive, as a turning-point? Well- it could be, but it's still hard to see Barça being beaten by many teams this season, unless they fall foul some sort of psychological crisis. They were certainly missing Eto'o for the first time this season, as Gudjohnsen was willing but far less able to frighten the Madrid back line.
Messi did some amazing things, and at times just seemed unstoppable, but in the end Robinho was the more effective of the two young starlets, criss-crossing Barca's back four with speedy and intelligent runs that constantly put the Catalans on the back foot when they were desperately trying to concentrate all their efforts on breaking Madrid down. If the Brazilian has at last come of age, then La Liga watch out. Even Becks got ten minutes at the end, which made the game his 100th appearance in the white shirt.
Valencia, Deportivo and Sevilla will of course resent the focus on el clásico this week, pointing out quite rightly that they're more than in with a shout this season. But like it or not, the idea that Madrid are back from the dead - love them or loathe them - is always good news, because it raises the temperature of the combat. The game at the Bernabéu was a great advertisement for La Liga, at a time when its self-proclaimed starlight was beginning to show signs of fading. Even Raúl and Roberto Carlos looked good! Football continues to move in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.
Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.
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